Building Up Undergraduate Residences

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Although some significant details still have to be worked out, the University is preparing to embark on a massive program of building new undergraduate residences and dining facilities and renovating old ones. The project, expected to cost upwards of $200 million over the next decade, is intended to complement the programmatic changes that have accompanied the introduction of the college-house system.

   If all goes according to plan, construction could begin on several (anywhere from two to five) new “Hamilton Village” college-house buildings in the Superblock area by the end of this year. Tentatively scheduled to open in 2001, the residences are likely to be three-to-five stories tall and will house a total of 1,000 students. In addition, virtually every undergraduate residence and dining facility will get some sort of face-lift, including a large-scale renovation of the Quadrangle, scheduled to begin this year; the demolition of Stouffer Triangle at 38th and Spruce Streets, followed by construction of a new dining facility on the same site; and a major overhaul of the three high-rise residences.
   The project is “very, very long overdue from a physical standpoint,” said John Fry, Penn’s executive vice president, “and it’s a highly desirable thing from a competitive standpoint. We absolutely need to have first-class residences in order to continue to compete — as well as first-class dining facilities.”
   “I think it’s the single most significant thing that Penn can do to support undergraduate education,” said Dr. David Brownlee, the professor of art history who serves as director of the Office of College Houses and Academic Services. “We at the University must always be innovative in curriculum, must always seek the best students and faculty we can find — those are ongoing responsibilities. But at this moment, we have a perhaps unique opportunity to change the circumstances in which we do all of that necessary work.”
   Penn administrators believe that by the time all the new construction and rehabilitation is finished, the capacity of campus residences will have increased by some 870 beds, to a total of 6,170. That increase, and the consequent drop in undergraduates living off-campus, will undoubtedly please many residents of University City, since undergraduates do not always make the best neighbors. And since Penn recently purchased 36 buildings containing 200 rental units from a local realtor — many of which will be fixed up and made available to faculty and staff — the University is offering further proof that it is serious about improving the neighborhood.
   In building the new residences, Penn hopes to “bring the vocabulary of Locust Walk across the bridge to 40th Street,” said Fry, who added that he hoped to “capture the essence of that 36th-to-38th Street piece of Locust Walk, and — through planting, through public art, through street furniture, through different types of materials for pavers — to create some of that warmth that you feel from 36th to 38th Street.” Ironically, one of the goals is to make the Superblock area more “village-like” — as it was before Penn demolished the Victorian houses there in the 1960s to make room for the high-rises.
   Although the new buildings will have a very different feel from the high-rises that will tower above them, the objectives “are the same across the board,” said Brownlee. “All college houses will have the facilities to support student activities and academic support” — including study space, computer labs, dining rooms, seminar rooms, house-office suites, and “pleasant general assembly areas.” Necessity being the mother of invention, he added, “we have variety — and must make use of it creatively.”
   From an architectural standpoint, said Fry, tearing down Stouffer and putting a new, better- designed facility in its place will “show more of the Quad behind it, which is one of our most wonderful pieces of work.” (But the announced demolition of Stouffer sparked complaints by some current residents.)
   “The most important task before Penn officials now is to design a long-term system of consultation that takes student and community voices into account,” stated The Daily Pennsylvanian in an editorial titled “Changing the face of campus.” “As students will be the ones who ultimately decide whether the plan succeeds or fails, their needs and ideas should be at the forefront of administrators’ minds.”
   Students — as well as members of the faculty and staff — have already been named to three consultative committees (for Hamilton Village, the Quad, and Hill College House) by the Office of College Houses and Academic Services and the Department of Housing and Conference Services; their work will support that of the Capital Projects Steering Committee. Ironically, it was partly the result of student input to a survey taken in the late 1960s that the high-rises were built in the first place.
   “That’s what’s sad,” said Brownlee, “but what people generally don’t acknowledge is that the high-rises are actually quite popular. There’s not an occupancy problem with them. So that doesn’t prove that asking students for their input is wrong. It just proves that you need to ask more than one question … Student consultation is going to be very, very visible throughout this campaign.
   “This can only be done if we acknowledge that it is a large project,” he added. “If we say, ‘We’ll do a little bit here, a little bit there,’ we’ll never do the whole thing.”
   “This is a multi-hundred- million-dollar investment,” said Fry, “and it’s going to be made over a substantial period of time. We’re not talking about spending upwards of $200 million in three years. This is something that has to be done within the context of the University’s financial capacity.”

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